By David Nicholls
Macmillan Publishers Inc.
1988 (paper)



By Alex Dupuy
Westview Press
1989 (hard back)

Review by Bob Corbett

The events of Haitian history are fairly clear and non-controversial. Some of them are extraordinary, such as the overthrow of the French slave system and defeat of some 80,000 well-armed French troops by a slave army. Other events are less encouraging, such as the steady stream of authoritarian and repressive regimes since the "liberty" of 1804.

What is controversial in Haitian history are causes. Why and how did these events occur? Did Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe and Rigaud with their slave army defeat the French, or did yellow fever? Is Haitian underdevelopment rooted in the Haitian treatment of Haitians, or in the imperialism of the United States, France and Britain?

These are difficult questions and the literature of Haitian history is filled with debates about them, especially in French. However, few books available in English contribute more positively to understanding Haitian history and the controversies of this history than the two books under review.

David Nicholls' fine history was first published in 1979. Macmillan recently published the paperback in 1988. It is a carefully documented history of Haiti from the revolutionary period (1791-1804), through Papa Doc Duvalier's years (1957-1971). He focuses on the question of race and class and argues that a particular sort of racial question is dominant over class interests in determining Haiti's history.

Nicholls' view is that race is closely related to culture in Haiti. The mulattos, in order to set themselves apart from the slaves turned to France for their identity and culture. While this caused mulattos to emphasize whiteness, more importantly it caused them to emphasize European-ness.

The blacks, however, most of whom were freed from slavery via the revolutionary struggle, hated the French and the whiteness they associated with the French. Since the mulattos were united with the white French, the blacks opposed, even hated the mulattos.

Again, however, Nicholls returns to the theme of culture. In this black rejection of whiteness what the blacks rejected was western culture.

Thus the ultimate battle lines of Haitian history were cultural issues. Nicholls does not deny the place of color and class, but argues this cultural racism (the mix of color and culture) is the dominant causal element in Haitian history.

Thus we have:

Mulattos Blacks
Catholic religion Voodoo religion
French language Haitian (Creole) language
French/Western customs African customs
Plantation system (proprietors) Subsistence farming

One of the fascinating sub-theses of his work is that any view of Haitian history one hears has already been shaped by whichever color/cultural world the historian comes from. A significant and extremely informative section of Nicholls' book is an analysis of Haitian history according to the standard mulatto view, then the same history from the standard black view. (E.g., was the black Toussaint or the mulatto Rigaud the real hero of the revolution?) Nicholls analyzes the major historians of both color/cultures to see how they deviate from the idealized pattern he describes of each color/cultural group.

This is a great way to read history. He tells us the same story from many points of view and criticizes the strengths and weaknesses of each view.

There is an odd curiosity to Nicholls' approach to Haiti. In the early history--the revolution of 1791-1804 and the early years of Haitian independence--until about 1848, Nicholls analyzes the events of Haitian history, trying to lay bare the causes.

From that point on Nicholls assumes that the events are shaped by the intellectuals who formulated history and ideology. Thus, rather than doing the same sort of causal analysis of historical events that he did early on, he assumes the causes of Haiti's history lie in these intellectual and ideological battles, and he show us how the events developed from the writings of such people as Thomas Madiou, J.C. Dorsinville, Jean Price-Mars, Les Griots. This latter section of his book is a tour-de-force of scholarship.

Alex Dupuy writes a very different, but equally fascinating book. He focuses on the same period of Haitian history, with an earlier start in colonial Saint-Domingue (French Haiti), and not ending until the fall of Leslie Manigat in 1988.

Dupuy's focus is not on general Haitian history, but on the nature of Haitian economy. His primary concern is to explain the causes of Haitian underdevelopment.

In particular Dupuy rejects the view that overpopulation is in any way a significant cause of Haiti's misery. Rather, he sees several important causes which correspond to various periods of Haitian history.

During the French colonial period the major problem was France, especially the maritime bourgeoisie. What they wanted from Saint-Domingue was two-fold:

France prohibited the colony from developing manufacturing since the French bourgeoisie wanted that for themselves in France.

Meanwhile in the colony itself the slave owning planters resisted any labor saving technologies. They had cheap labor from the slaves, and any decrease in their labor intense lives could have provided a dangerous "idleness."

Given that the overwhelming mass of people in the colony were unpaid slaves, no serious internal market developed.

All of these factors combined to create a highly dependent and underdeveloped economy which independent Haiti inherited in 1804.

From 1804 until 1843 the early Haitian rulers continued this underdevelopment. There were no longer official slaves, but Toussaint, Dessalines, Christophe and Boyer all tried to re-introduce the plantation system, but failed to get the former slaves to return to the plantations.

Rather, the newly freed Haitians retreated to subsistence farming and small-plot coffee exporting. This weak internal economy enforced the underdevelopment. The primary problem was the lack of any integrated economy, that is, producing raw materials or agricultural products which fed into manufacturing, which, in turn, returned goods to the local market. Instead Haiti had small local food markets, raw coffee exports, and relied on the importation of all manufactured goods and many foodstuffs.

Because of this import-centered economy, the international community earned more profits from Haiti than Haitians, even the rich ones. It marketed expensive manufactured goods in Haiti, and added the lucrative processing to Haitian coffee and other export crops.

The Haitian power elite retreated to the periphery of the economy and jockeyed for governmental power in order to expropriate whatever profits they could from the mechanisms of the state (taxation, import/export levies) and the graft that came with government offices, especially the presidency.

A new phase came to Haiti with the American occupation (1915-1934). The occupation was the culmination of foreign capital's penetration of Haiti. The Americans forced the Haitians to give up their 1804 insistence that only Haitians could own land. This allowed American interests to purchase land and more fully control Haiti. The occupation also marked the end of any significant international competition to the United States. The Americans effectively drove all other countries out of Haiti.

Perhaps the most startling claim in Dupuy's analysis of the 20th century is the ironic thesis that the American occupation set the conditions for the origins of Duvalierism and hammered the final nails in Haiti's casket of underdevelopment. The Americans decided to build up the middle class to break the stronghold on the country which the Haitian elite held, especially the mulattos. This itself was ironic since the Haitians already existed on the periphery of their own economy, and the Americans were working hard to insure deeper American penetration. Haiti was a market for American goods, and a cheap source of food stuffs.

The Americans did succeed in building a middle class of professionals--doctors, lawyers, teachers, and government bureaucrats. However, this rising class, which was almost entirely black, had a long hard struggle to carve out a place in Haitian economy. The ideology which it developed was a noirist one--a celebration of things black and African-- to offset the power sources which blocked them in--the white Americans and the dominant Haitian mulatto elite. (Note how well Dupuy's analysis dove-tails with Nicholls'!)

The ultimate outcome of this movement was the presidency and 29 year dictatorship of the Duvalier family. What Francois, Papa Doc, Duvalier brought to Haiti, on Dupuy's view, was not a change in the structure of Haiti's economy, nor even a change in the violence of government, but a shake-up of who controlled the government. Duvalier, for the first time in Haitian history, elevated to power a black non-elite middle class. He built up the fragile roots of existing black ascendancy--the rural Voodoo priests, rural sheriffs and justices of the peace, and junior black military officers. The external violence of his struggle, probably the most blatant use of force in Haitian history, did change the power relations and who controlled the government and the right to expropriate wealth. But, it also further devastated the economy, destroying tourism, driving out foreign investors and disrupting rural production.

One of the strongest features of both books is that each author presents his own case with clear crisp arguments, but names and identifies the sources of opposing views. I came away from these books not necessarily convinced by either author's view, but enriched in my understanding of the possibilities and armed with dozens of sources which are now on my "must read" list.

It is a sad fact that many excellent books on Haiti don't stay in print very long. Both Nicholls and Dupuy's fine books are still available. For any serious student of Haiti these works are excellent investments in your growth in understanding the complexity of Haiti's current reality through a deeper grasp of her tortured history.


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